Pioneering pathologist

Kumudini Hettiarachchi speaks to nearly 92-year-old Dr. Doris Peiris, who goes back in time to the laboratories of many hospitals where she once reigned

The medical verdict was a life sentence, without hope, only despair. "You have only about six months to live as you have cancer," a well-known personality in the country is told, while only three months, and a very painful three months at that, are given to a baby who has just passed his first birthday.

Doris today: Still smartly clad as in her younger days (inset pic) Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Both "victims", however, have a "connection" that would save them from agonizing treatment and its consequences. The reports are shown to another doctor who not only allays their fears but also tells them that the earlier findings are rubbish.

The assurances from the second doctor come with strict orders not to undergo chemotherapy. The well-known personality is hale and hearty but very emotional 10 years after the second diagnosis while the tiny-tot is now 44 years old with two children of his own.

Now in the evening of her life, surrounded by love and care, after major surgery is the "saviour" not only in these two cases but also hundreds, nay thousands – Dr. (Miss) Doris Christobelle Peiris who ruled over the laboratories of several hospitals including the Colombo General Hospital of yore for many a long year as Pathologist, gently but firmly. (Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases, especially dealing with the laboratory examination of samples of body tissue for diagnostic or forensic purposes.)

"Spot-on," is how, a nephew describes her diagnosis not only on studying the cells and matter under a microscope but even now looking at reports that both young and old doctors, all former students of hers, bring to her for her opinion.

The first Council of the Ceylon College of Physicians in the 1960s: (Standing from left) Dr. N.D.W. Lionel, Dr. M.O.R. Modenza, Dr. C. Wijesinghe, Prof. K. Rajasuriya and Dr. L. Ranasinghe. (Seated from left) Dr. Mirando, Dr. D.B. Gunasekara, Dr. E.M. Wijerama, Dr. W.D.I. Fernando and Dr. Doris Peiris.

A Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a respected veteran and academic in his own right, who performed the recent surgery on Dr. Doris, jumps up to open the door for "my teacher and mentor" and treats her like a queen, the nephew says in awe, while the grateful staff of the Colombo National Hospital (earlier known as the General Hospital), where she served long years, streams into her room at the Merchants' Ward to pay homage to this icon of pathology.

When the Sunday Times meets her last Tuesday, smartly-clad (a hallmark not only throughout her medical career but even in retirement) in scarf and all (... "my hair is unruly") and a touch of lipstick, Dr. Doris is all smiles.

"I wanted to be a journalist and not a doctor," she quips, going back in time to her teenage years, when her essay-writing book would be snapped up by the editors of the Bishop's College magazine for publication there. One was a piece on William Shakespeare which she titled, 'No heroes, only heroines'.

The laughter flows as she recalls how she wrote a glowing piece about Edward VIII (uncle of the present Queen of England) soon after his father died, only to find that he abdicated his throne to marry the divorcee, Wallis Simpson. "I was at the butt end of many a joke that it happened because I praised him," she says.

With her sights set on journalism, although her parents wanted her to become a doctor to "serve the people", she contacted Uncle Leo (J.D.L. Fernando) who was at the Daily News for advice and was told: Journalism is a good walking stick but a poor crutch.

The family was recovering after the recession and had lost a lot, so to medicine she turned.
An only child, she had been born at the Old Rest-house at Lunawa close to the sea, which was their home at that time. Owned by an uncle who was on his estate at Waga, the house was given to her parents, Charles Wilfred Peiris, a landowner and planter, when her mother, Harriet Matilda was told by her father that sea water was good for expectant mothers to dip their feet in.

"I was born at home," she says, quick to counter when asked whether being an only child she was thoroughly spoilt, "No, I was sent to Bishop's College very young, with the Principal who was a nun keeping a close eye on me."

The nun was well-known to the family because they had met her many times at celebrations of Doris's birthday as a child when they would treat the children of St. John's Orphanage at Moratuwa, with sweets including jellies. It was later that she had taken up the mantle of Bishop's College.

With the decision to do medicine, there was no turning back and so she entered the Colombo Medical Faculty in the 1930s, beating others like Rex de Costa (the planter-doctor who was later killed by insurgents on his estate at Deniyaya during the 1971 insurgency) by one year because she had the advantage of being born in February.

It was at the Medical Faculty that she excelled in pathology although she was not too keen on forensic pathology and under the guidance of Prof. W.A.E. Karunaratne went down the "straight pathology" path. Explaining the four branches of pathology, Dr. Doris, says they are chemical, microbiological, haematology and histopathology.

Her attraction was towards the 'H branches' of pathology. Histopathology., the study of tissues, tumours, skin lesions, growths fascinated her. "I also liked haematology, the blood studies linked to leukaemia and bone marrow," she adds.

Having served at different hospitals and also at the Medical Research Institute, it was in England where she went for further studies that everything fell into place. At that time, only 16 students from all over the world could get into the prestigious Royal Postgraduate Medical School of London of the University of London to do the Diploma in Clinical Pathology and armed with a letter from Prof. Karunaratne to Prof. Didle it was straight in for her. “The diseases of the blood that I studied here were right down my street," says Dr. Doris. There were only three women including herself and she was closest to the English girl because they worked opposite each other peering through their microscopes engaged in meticulous work and discussing slides in-between.

Having secured the diploma, her next goal was to sit the examination for the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians. Here she came to a crossroad in her life. She had a choice -- London or Edinburgh. London was the usual, but Edinburgh beckoned because blood diseases were part of the course. "Bonded to do the London MRCP, I decided to do both, London and Edinburgh."

Completely at home at Edinburgh, among a huge collection of accumulated slides, which was "child's play" which she cleared quickly, the accolades came not only for her work but also for the English that she spoke. Amazed at her results and the perfect English she spoke sans a cockney accent, they wondered aloud how this girl from Ceylon had overtaken their local students. Stay back and work for us, Prof. Stanley David had requested her on the recommendation of his House Officer that they keep her.
For young Dr. Doris however, there was no option - her parents to whom she was very close who had accompanied her to England were ready to return home with her.

Back in Sri Lanka, with much pathological knowledge and skill, it was short-shrift that she got from the authorities when she was told...... "We can't give you Ridgeway (Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children) to which her retort had been, "I didn't ask for Ridgeway. Just tell me where I should go."
It was either Jaffna or Galle and Galle it was because she couldn't dream of going far away from her parents to Jaffna.

Galle Hospital in 1955 had nothing for her to do, she recalls. The technicians were handling the small stuff but there was no equipment for her, with the Head of Department pointing out that the sea effectively halted work with its winds and moisture causing rust in all the equipment. When she asked him to let her go, he had one request - he would give her a wing in the Radiology Department and would she furnish, equip and set up a good pathology laboratory.

Having done what he wanted, she then took up a post at the Kandy Hospital, serving there for eight years, "loving every minute of it" and so reluctant to come to the General Hospital, Colombo, that she suggested to the authorities to forget about seniority and give the post to the doctor junior to her.
Roundly scolded by her seniors such as Dr. Willie Ratnavale for attempting to give up her seniority, which is sacrosanct in the Medical Service, Dr. Doris sheepishly but still reluctantly took up the post of Consultant Pathologist at the General Hospital in 1964, holding it till 1980. Two years after taking up the post she had become a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists and later the Royal College of Physicians, all the while taking under her wing the many batches of students who were passing through the portals of the Colombo Medical Faculty.

The awe and admiration of her students were put into words when in August this year the College of Pathologists of Sri Lanka felicitated Dr. Doris for "her outstanding contribution". NHSL's Consultant Chemical Pathologist Dr. Saroja Siriwardene stated: "I was one fortunate undergraduate who benefited from her crystal clear and complete lectures.....I cherished the notes I scribbled down, little realizing that I would be delving into them later, when it became my turn to specialize in pathology. I still have this notebook of 1975 with contributions in Clinical Biochemistry from Dr. A.B.V. Perera, her colleague, the Chemical Pathologist of the General Hospital.

"I particularly recall Dr. (Miss) Peiris as she lectured to us 35 years ago. Meticulously dressed in a neatly-draped sari, always with matching ear-studs and the tidy hair-do in a top knot were her hallmarks, which we as students noticed and admired."

Dr. Doris, it is evident, could spot the moment something was wrong in biopsies from the breast, lung, womb, liver or kidney. To us, the uninitiated, she explains that in cytology (the structure and function of cells), where you take a sample and spin it and take the residue and make a smear on the slide, she could diagnose a leukaemia if certain cells were present. Her professional life was not without its niggles, but they never steered Dr. Doris away from her path of dedication and her capability and skill had been proven over and over again. Not only was she recalled to work at the General Hospital after retirement as surgeons were "grumbling that reports were not coming on time" but she was also recruited by the Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital as Consultant Pathologist until her final retirement in 1992 when she says she was "quite old" (she was 72).

Times have changed, she concedes, with the tedious and meticulous work on pathology that was done earlier becoming easier with computers and machines taking over. However, the Sunday Times is left to wonder how such advances could still result in the drastic misdiagnosis of cases like the well-known personality who was given six months to live by cancer specialists.

Now having undergone surgery and giving away all her worldly possessions including her home to the Anglican Church as a "gift to God", she spends time among her books. Her favourites are 'Rebecca', 'Mostly Murder'......a "lovely book", 'Journey Round My Eye' and two translations of Martin Wickremesinghe's books, which his nephew, a Ph.D holder in Neuropathology whom she had helped a long time ago has presented to her.

Marvelling at the "beautiful culture in the villages", she laughs that she is learning a lot as she was always a "town girl" who had grown up in Moratuwa and Colombo. Dr. Doris also a theatre and cinema lover enjoys listening to western classical music and watching TV including CNN News, adding quietly that she likes the people on 'Bold and Beautiful'.

When asked why she never married, she is quick to reply that although there were many suitors, with her nephew interjecting that even in her 60s there were, she knew that she could not do both– run a family and work at the same time. "With my passion for work, I know that my family would have suffered and once I explained this to those who proposed, we continued to be friends."

Ninety-one plus, nearly three-quarters to 92, says Dr. Doris, adding, "but not quite there", when asked how old she is, we leave her to her books, especially the Bible, wondering why, though her parents died in their 80s, "it pleases God to keep me here" while at the same time thankful that in spite of her physical frailties her mind is crystal clear.

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